What It Means to Drive Your Own Life

Man behind steering wheel driving on long road

I’m always saying that in psychology and daily life, philosophy matters — particularly ethics.

Here’s an example to support my point.

Psychotherapist Amy Morin, writing at psychologytoday.com, has a sensible article entitled, “5 Signs You’re Trying too Hard to Please Everyone.”

Here’s some of her advice:

Make self-awareness a priority. Start paying attention to your likes and dislikes.

Set out to make one simple request per day—even if it’s as simple as asking a friend to proof-read an email or a co-worker to save you a seat at a meeting. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get asking for help.

And my favorite:

Examine how you spend most of your time each day and consider whether you’re really devoting enough energy to the things that are most important to you. If not, establish goals that will help you start living more in sync with your values.

I can guarantee you, if I handed this advice to most people, the answer I will get is: “But isn’t this selfish?”

It’s a fair question. And it relates to ethics. Ethics refers to the branch of philosophy which refers to how people should act.

Yes, this therapist’s advice is, in fact, selfish. I define selfish as acting in one’s objective self-interest, while respecting and honoring the same right and requirement of another to do the same.

By that definition of selfish, of course this advice is selfish … and it should be.

Every minute of your life counts. Every minute of your life is your own. It’s a selfish and entirely justified demand. And it’s a demand you should honor equally in everyone else you know, or don’t know.

The purpose of your life is ultimately for you. If this were not the case, there would be no reason for consulting a psychotherapist or self-help article in the first place.

You’re in the driver’s seat of your life. To extend the metaphor … it’s your car! It’s not anybody else’s. You can bring along anyone for the ride that you wish. But it’s your car.

We cannot escape ethics by refusing to think about the subject. The two dominant approaches to ethics are “live for others because that’s what God wants” or “live for others because that’s what society or other people need.” Either way, self-interest is screwed. And if self-interest is screwed, so is your happiness, your self-esteem, your mood, your freedom from addiction, and all the things people seek out psychotherapists for in the first place.

If you accept the idea that self-interest is bad, then every time you do something obviously for yourself — necessary for everyone, at times — you will feel inner conflict, guilt or shame. This stuff is the carcinogenic toxin of the psyche. The more it builds, the more you’re heading towards a calamity where the objective requirement to live a self-interested life clashes with your Sunday School conviction that, “I’m only a good person when I’m giving up.”

Many have observed a breakdown in personal responsibility throughout society. Does anyone notice that personal responsibility breaks down as self-interest is even more stridently condemned, by the President, the Pope, or just about any person considered influential in the realm of ethics, spirituality, morality or psychology? The fact is: If you won’t permit self-interest, you will not get self-responsibility, either. Not in yourself; not in others.

The definition of mental health is a state of rational serenity, defined as acceptance of what you cannot change combined with vigorous pursuit of what your survival and happiness require. You have to make up your mind as to whether you will live a life of self-interest, or not. Otherwise, you’ll be riddled with inner conflict and contradiction of the sort that makes good advice irrelevant, and a truly happy, serene life (even with fame and fortune) impossible.

I will say it, because not many others will: You are entitled to spend every second of your time as you see fit. You are selfishly entitled to what’s yours, your time most of all. That’s all you’re entitled to; but you’re entitled to every last bit of it.

You may spend all of your time giving to others, none of it, or whatever you see fit. If you want a rational and happy outcome, you have to consider numerous factors as to when giving makes sense, and when it does not, with respect to your self-interest. I do not mean to imply that it’s all subjective. But deciding how to spend your time is foundational, because your time is the most basic and precious thing you have.

You can either agree or disagree with any therapist’s advice. The therapist is not my point. The point is that you cannot escape the topic of ethics when making any decision involving your daily life. Every action, great and small, has implications for whether you’re living a life of self-interest, or a life of sacrifice for the sake of others.

There’s an old saying that charity begins at home. So too does happiness. If you’re unhappy, miserable and resentful — because you give and you give and you give, and never seem to get anything back — then it’s not other people you have to blame. It’s yourself, for the ethical code you have accepted and the resulting emotional state you have acquired.

You can change both, any time you wish, and any time you have the courage and independence of spirit to think and act in a new way.

Very often, to change one’s emotional state, one has to change one’s whole approach to the subject of ethics. It’s not some abstract subject reserved for religion and philosophers. It’s your whole life at stake here.

Treat yourself and your life well. It’s the only one you’ve got; and it belongs to you.




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